autumn foraging + roasted chestnuts

Some questions only have one answer. For example, when you are staying at a Bed and Breakfast in a small village where Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany meet and the owner of that B&B asks you if you would like to join her and her dog for a Sunday morning walk in the woods there is only one answer. And when those woods are known to be home to truffles, porcini and chestnuts then that answer is accompanied by an exclamation point. Perhaps even three exclamation points. 

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be asked such a question and my answer was obviously yes. (!!!) A group of us drove from the village in the valley to the woods up on the hill. Even after an hour of chestnut foraging we continued to feel excited whenever we stumbled upon a bunch of ready-to-pick chesnuts resting on the forest floor. We used sticks and our boots to poke and prod the prickly, protective shells and to remove the chestnuts. Each chestnut that we gathered felt earned and well deserved.

In fact, in such a situation almost any question that you are asked has only one answer. A glass of wine after the walk? Salami to eat with the wine? Cheese? Beans? Lunch after the aperitivo? A second serving of boar sausage? A digestif? Coffee? Well, yes please of course.

I always associate chestnuts with Christmas time in Europe.

Christmas in general and Christmas markets in specific are a large part of why I continue to be charmed by living in Europe. From large pots of scalloped potatoes in the south of France to extra strong glogg with a serving of ginger cookies in Sweden, Christmas markets are a feature across the continent. From country to country you find differences in the types of food served with the exception of roasted chestnuts. A market is just not a Christmas market unless there are roasted chestnuts.  

Germans are particularly good at Christmas markets. It is as if all of those sausages and buns that they eat on the street throughout the year - as well as the beer that they drink with them - is practice for Christmas markets. In just over a week I'll be heading back north of the Alps to Munich. As much as I'll miss Venice's fresh seafood and abundance of kale, I am looking forward to returning to Germany just in time for the beginning of Christmas market season.

Chestnuts are to autumn what white asparagus is to spring. They make you aware of the change in seasons and the passing of time. Both are foods that we only eat at very specific times and because of that it only feels right to eat chestnuts in the context of warm wool sweaters and scarves. We eat chestnuts when we need to keep our hands warm in gloves and in pockets and when the colours of the leaves have gone from bright green to shades of burnt red and orange. White asparagus in winter and chestnuts in spring just does not make sense.

I do believe that chestnuts taste best when they are both freshly roasted and eaten outside, but roasting them at home is the next best thing to eating them at a European Christmas market. 

How to Roast Chestnuts  

If you are out foraging chestnuts, make sure to go for the larger ones. If you are out grocery-store-foraging chestnuts, then make sure to look for glossy shells that are unwrinkled.

Preheat oven to 350F / 190 C. 

Using a sharp paring knife, cut an x into the flesh of one of the flat sides of each chestnut. Place the chestnuts in an even layer on a baking sheet - cut side up - and bake for about 35 minutes. Let cool only slightly. Chestnuts are easiest to peel when they are still hot, but let them cool enough so that you can handle them comfortably. Remove the shell and papery skin of each chestnut. 

Eat the warm chestnuts just as they are. You can also store the chestnuts in an air-tight container in the refrigerator for a few days and add them to bowls of oatmeal or quinoa (I particularly like chestnuts combined with prunes). I also like adding chestnuts to risotto (butternut squash risotto with crispy sage, I'm talking about you in particular) as a savory option. Chestnuts also get along well with mushrooms as well as with shrimp. And then there are countless sweet options such as chestnut cream to chestnut cakes.

Guten! And let the Christmas eating begin!

Shirin  – (December 2, 2012 at 9:17 PM)  

this is so beautiful, Sasha! next time I will tag along...

I just tried chestnut soup at a German thanksgiving dinner. I think you would have fallen for the stuff - based on my gentle interrogation, the recipe sounded similar to this one :

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